The rich may not be able to get richer in 2007, but they sure have a great chance of staying rich.
The NFL is entering a different period of free agency. Plan B in the late 1980s was a preview. It gave teams the taste of being able to bid for players even though teams controlled the fate of more than 30 they wanted to keep. The early and mid-1990s offered the chance to experiment. Some experiments succeeded. Others failed. By 2000, it was pretty evident championship teams could be purchased through free agency.
The new era of free agency will turn more toward maintenance than acquisition. The cap increases to $109 million this year and there won't be enough top players in free agency to merit that much money.
The good news is that teams can keep most of their top free agents. The bad news is the price will go up.
This new world will create new strategies. Now, teams have the luxury of placing a franchise tag on their top free agents. The price of the top players to hit the market will skyrocket, making for a fast market at the start of March. It will be hard for any team to get more than two or three high-priced free agents.
Teams on the rise are the Titans, 49ers, Cardinals and possibly the Packers. The NFC West is rapidly improving. The NFC North is the league's worst division.
The league is also heading into a period of coaching instability. As many as 11 franchises have coaches on the hot seat.
Here's a look ahead at the 2007 season.
Cap room: $32.1 million
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt had the finances to hire a good staff. Having Russ Grimm coaching the offensive line and Clancy Pendergast on defense is a good way to start. The team is getting closer. Matt Leinart has Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson to work the passing offense. The offensive line came together late in the 2006 season when Nick Leckey took over at center and Reggie Wells moved to right tackle. That should open more holes for halfback Edgerrin James. Grimm is a master at building a good offensive line. The Cardinals expect to lose left tackle Leonard Davis to San Francisco or Dallas, so they will be in the market for the left tackle. They will probably make a run at Bears defensive tackle Ian Scott to help their interior defensive line. They could also look for a strongside linebacker. Other than Davis, they shouldn't lose many of their 14 unrestricted free agents. Whisenhunt also benefits from having the NFC's easiest schedule.
Cap room: $3.8 million
New head coach Bobby Petrino's biggest mission is getting the most out of QB Michael Vick. He plans to add audibles to the playbook. He wants to give Vick more options. This is an important year for Vick because the Falcons have to figure out if he is going to get them back to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what Petrino does with the offensive line. Center Todd McClure, guard Kynan Forney and tackle Todd Weiner are better suited for a light, athletic Alex
Gibbs-type offensive line. Gibbs is gone and the Falcons concede size. Petrino has only eight free agents and one of those is defensive end Patrick Kerney, whose contract was voided. Age is becoming a concern on defense. Lawyer Milloy will be 33. Keith Brooking just turned 30. Kerney, John Abraham, Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson are also getting older. Petrino also has tough decisions to make at wide receiver. Ashley Lelie probably won't be back. He's a free agent. Michael Jenkins and Roddy White haven't lit it up either. Edgerton Hartwell, the middle linebacker, could be a cap casualty after two injury-plagued seasons. Another concern is that is Warrick Dunn is going to be 32, a dangerous age for a running back.
Cap room: $3.3 million
The move to go to QB Steve McNair put the Ravens in the divisional playoffs last season and makes them a solid playoff candidate for this year. Changes on this team probably will be minimal. The Ravens have 10 free agents. The biggest name is linebacker Adalius Thomas. If they don't franchise him, he could leave for the 49ers and reunite with Mike Nolan, the former Ravens defensive coordinator. The Ravens could cut halfback Jamal Lewis instead of giving him a $5 million roster bonus in March. If that happens, they would use a first- or second-round choice on a good, young running back. Ray Lewis should be able to talk left tackle Jonathan Ogden out of retiring. If Ogden doesn't return, the Ravens will drop another game or two. The line performed well but was shaky. Losing Ogden would be a major blow, but he should be back. Mike Flynn is expected to restructure his contract and be a backup center. The Ravens have been drafting good, young receivers to go with Derrick Mason, who wasn't happy about the offense at the end of the season. Another key free agent is right tackle Tony Pashos, who played well toward the end of the season and could get a big payday.
Cap room: $33 million
It's hard to tell whether the Bills are ready to jump the 8-8 hurdle. Dick Jauron brought an air of stability to the franchise last season. J.P. Losman showed signs of being a promising young quarterback. But if the Bills make the wrong decisions in free agency, they will be in danger of sliding back. They figure to lose cornerback Nate Clements. They could lose linebacker London Fletcher and defensive end Chris Kelsay. With $33 million of cap room, it's hard to believe they would lose anyone, but these are the decisions facing Jauron and general manager Marv Levy. Finding a replacement for Clements will be impossible in this market unless they get Asante Samuel from New England. They will probably cut quarterback Kelly Holcomb. The Bills should be able to make some major upgrades along the offensive line. Mike Gandy is a free agent, and the Bills have to decide if they want to keep Chris Villarrial at guard. Through the draft and free agency, they have enough ammunition to improve the shaky blocking from last season. The line is the thinnest unit on the team.
Cap room: $1.8 million
John Fox doesn't have worries about his job, but 2007 is a make or break year for this franchise. Last year was supposed to be the Panthers' year to return to the Super Bowl. Instead they went 8-8 and Fox made three major changes on his coaching staff, including the firing of offensive coordinator Dan Henning and secondary coach Rod Perry. Several players -- defensive end Mike Rucker, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, cornerback Ken Lucas and safety Mike Minter -- could be gone for cap reasons, although it's more likely the team will keep most of these guys for another playoff run. Dan Morgan could also be gone if his concussion problems don't go away, but he at least has a chance to make it to the minicamps and training camp. Expect the Panthers to get a pass-catching tight end as they turn away from the Henning offense. Even though they won't have the cap room to be a big player in free agency, the Panthers usually rework enough contracts to get the things they want. They have 10 free agents.
Cap room: $16.8 million
This should be the third year of a four-season run for the Bears atop of the NFC North. They have only eight free agents and the cap room to franchise linebacker Lance Briggs and prevent him from leaving. They want to re-sign guard Ruben Brown. Defensive tackle Ian Scott might be the toughest to re-sign. Expect no cap cuts either. The Bears play in the easiest division, so their chances of going back to the Super Bowl are good. They have issues with the coaching staff, however. Lovie Smith is entering the final year of his contract and the team is nowhere close to getting a contract extension. The Bears got a break when the Cowboys hired Wade Phillips, allowing them the chance to keep Ron Rivera as defensive coordinator. Rivera would have been Norv Turner's defensive coordinator had Turner been offered the Cowboys' job. Expect little change with this team.
Cap room: $18.7 million
The Bengals should be able to battle the Steelers and Ravens for the AFC North title as long as they clean up the off-the-field distractions. They have been embarrassed by nine arrests over the past year. Owner Mike Brown vows the team will stay away from players with bad pasts. There should be some significant changes on this team. The Bengals might cut cornerback Deltha O'Neal. They have to decide if they want to keep defensive tackles John Thornton and Sam Adams. The Bengals could be hit hard in free agency. They figure to lose guard Eric Steinbach. Defensive end Justin Smith could leave. They may not re-sign cornerback Tory James, and have to make decisions on wide receiver Kelley Washington and tight end Tony Stewart. Quarterback Carson Palmer wants Reggie Kelly to return, but the Bengals will be looking to upgrade the tight end position. Palmer should be 100 percent healed from his knee reconstruction. He had a Pro Bowl season playing at about 85 percent. Watch out for him next season.
Cap room: $26.2 million
Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage will be operating with a ghost hovering over them. Bill Cowher is available. Although Cowher says he wants to sit out two seasons, he could be lured away from his new North Carolina home for the chance to get full power in Cleveland. The whole organization has its future at stake this season. The first two years under Crennel have been disastrous. Owner Randy Lerner isn't happy. Neither are the fans. The defensive front seven is aging. Cornerback Gary Baxter is coming off two major knee operations and probably will be cut. Right tackle Ryan Tucker has been battling an undisclosed mental disorder. Center LeCharles Bentley suffered a bad knee injury and developed an infection. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards is a loose cannon and has off-the-field concerns. Tight end Kellen Winslow is talented but not a great downfield threat because of his knee problem. Quarterback Charlie Frye continues to get pounded behind a poor offensive line. The Browns could get lucky and have Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn fall to them. They have only eight free agents, including three offensive linemen -- Cosey Coleman, Hank Fraley and Lennie Friedman. Unless there is a big jump with this team, Lerner may be pushing a lot of people out of the door.
Cap room: $18.2 million
Jerry Jones invested so much money in the 3-4 defense, he wanted to hire a defensive coach who knew the 3-4. Wade Phillips was his choice because he is one of the best 3-4 coaches in football. Phillips takes over a talented playoff team. We'll see how his good nature works with Terrell Owens, who drove Bill Parcells into retirement. There don't need to be a lot of changes on the team. The Cowboys have only seven free agents, but they should re-sign center Andre Gurode after he went to the Pro Bowl. Phillips' biggest challenge is figuring out the offensive line. Marco Rivera and Flozell Adams are aging. Right tackle Marc Colombo is a free agent. So is backup center Al Johnson. The Cowboys might make a move for Leonard Davis of the Cardinals to add some bulk to the offensive line. Jason Garrett takes over as offensive coordinator and will try to get the most of out QB Tony Romo, who will have his first full season as the starting quarterback. Phillips will make a point of getting the defense to perform better on first and second downs. The Cowboys gave up the league's most yardage on first down. They rarely got pressure on quarterbacks on first and second downs. Phillips was hired to improve that.
Cap room: $2.6 million
Mike Shanahan is shaking things up. He made some surprising changes on the coaching staff. The main move was replacing defensive coordinator Larry Coyer with Jim Bates. Bates runs an aggressive man-to-man defense. Expect some shakeups on the roster, too. Shanahan will try to trade quarterback Jake Plummer to Houston now that Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback. Major changes should happen on the defensive line. The Broncos are going away from the Cleveland defensive line. They fired the former Browns defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who coached the Broncos' former Browns the past two seasons. They are going to let defensive tackle Michael Myers test the free-agent market. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren is the only sure anchor with Cleveland experience expected to return. The Broncos could trade right tackle George Foster, who has been a disappointment. They will try to upgrade at right tackle. Rod Smith will probably move into the No. 3 wide receiver role. They will probably make a big move for a pass-rusher. They will also be looking for running back help. Tatum Bell fumbled too much for Shanahan's taste. The Broncos will be playing the third-place schedule, which should help them bounce back into the playoff race and challenge the Chargers and Chiefs.
Cap room: $15.6 million
Year 8 in the Matt Millen regime features more change. Even though they would like to draft a pass-rusher, the Lions could lean toward drafting Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas. They will be in the market for a receiver now that they have settled on Roy Williams and Mike Furrey as their top two pass-catchers. They expect to bid big for a free-agent middle linebacker. The Lions could dump a few free-agent acquisitions from the past few years -- tight end Marcus Pollard, cornerback Fernando Bryant, and guards Ross Verba and Damien Woody. The surprising news is that they don't appear to be interested in drafting quarterback JaMarcus Russell or Brady Quinn. They are content to go with Jon Kitna as the starter in the Mike Martz offense. They have concerns at halfback. Kevin Jones is coming off a Lisfranc injury that could jeopardize this season. The Lions have 11 free agents, but they may try to franchise defensive lineman Cory Redding to keep him around.
Green Bay Packers
Cap room: $24.1 million
Brett Favre is back for 2007, and it's not out of the question he will play even longer. He had fun last year. At 8-8, the Packers have a chance to get back into the playoff picture. They have enough cap room to make a move and they don't have many re-signing issues. They have eight unrestricted free agents, and they will try to re-sign Ahman Green and backup tight end David Martin. The rest of the free agents are backups. The Packers need better play at tight end and safety, and will be looking for upgrades. The defensive line will also be a main focus of general manager Ted Thompson. The offensive line made a positive turn despite having as many as three rookie starters. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver form a good receiver tandem.
Cap room: $16.65 million
The David Carr era may be coming to an end. Gary Kubiak appears to be seriously looking at trading for Jake Plummer. Where that leaves Carr is anyone's guess. The Texans are tired of losing. It's also possible they could draft Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson if he's available in the first round, although their priority is a left tackle. This might sound unbelievable for a team that drafted Mario Williams over Reggie Bush, but the Texans would like to add another pass-rusher. This will be a tough year for the Texans. Their schedule is impossible. They face 11 teams that had .500 records or better in 2006. The AFC South is suddenly becoming one of the toughest divisions in football. The Texans are improving, but they might need another year or two before they can think about contending. They have 15 free agents. Expect them to try to re-sign cornerback Dexter McCleon, who did well coming off the street to start. They also have to decide about the future of RB Domanick Williams, who missed last season because of knee problems.
Cap room: $200,000
The Colts won't have room to be a player in free agency, but they should do enough to keep this team together. They can restructure Peyton Manning's contract and save about $8 million in cap room. They can cut wide receiver Brandon Stokley and defensive tackle Corey Simon. Defensive end Dwight Freeney will either be franchised or get a new contract. The big decision involves linebacker Cato June. The Colts lost linebackers Marcus Washington, Mike Peterson and David Thornton over the past few years and the defense suffered with their departures. June may not be as good as those three players, but he is a playmaker the Colts would like to keep. Expect the Colts to look for larger defensive line backups who will allow them to put some bigger packages together against power running teams. The Colts have a chance to repeat. It's not out of the question for them to be able to re-sign halfback Dominic Rhodes. They will lose safety Mike Doss, but that is intentional. Manning vows to get better as a quarterback and that is scary for the rest of the league.
Cap room: $21.6 million
Jack Del Rio could be on the hot seat if he doesn't win in 2007. The team has been a playoff contender under his reign, but it slipped in 2006. He abandoned injured Byron Leftwich to go with David Garrard, only to find out Garrard was simply a very good backup. Now, he has to make up with Leftwich and make sure Leftwich has enough trust in his coach. The good news for the Jaguars is there won't be many changes on this team. The Jaguars have done a good job of re-signing most of their good, young players. They have only seven free agents, the main one being safety Deon Grant. Jacksonville won't have to cut anyone for cap reasons. Del Rio has been very active in changing coaches. He fired five assistants after the season. The concern is the Titans may be getting better and becoming the second-best team in the AFC South.
Kansas City Chiefs
Cap room: $5.1 million
Head coach Herman Edwards may have a hard time getting the Chiefs out of the seven-to-nine-win rutt. The Chiefs are an older team that is starting to undergo a major transition along the offensive line. Willie Roaf is gone. Will Shields is getting older. The right tackle spot is in flux. Trent Green is expected to be the starting quarterback but he will be 37 next season. The Chiefs have to decide if they should keep Damon Huard as the backup. They also have plans for Brodie Croyle. Something has to give. There shouldn't be too many releases. Kick returner Dante Hall is on the bubble but will probably stay. Kansas City hasn't been thrilled with linebacker Kendrell Bell, but he should be back. The biggest name among the nine free agents is middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who may be targeted by the Lions and other teams. The cornerbacks -- Ty Law and Patrick Surtain -- are old, but they can still play. The Chiefs need major upgrades at defensive tackle. It's also time to get some wide receiver help. Edwards should be familiar with the situation. This team looks like the Jets team he coached to three playoff appearances. The problem is that this could be the year age catches up with the Chiefs and they drop out of playoff contention.
Cap room: $13.1 million
Nick Saban's biggest problem was that he was indecisive. He'd waffle on decisions for the longest time, even though he'd put pressure on his staff to help him with those decisions. Consequently, he let the Dolphins' defense get old and he wasted a year figuring out the quarterback situation. Saban is gone and the Dolphins organization is rejoicing. New coach Cam Cameron comes in with a nice persona and an all-star staff. First he has to figure out the quarterback position. Daunte Culpepper should be the starter as long as his knee finally heals properly with rest and rehab. Joey Harrington may be a cap casualty, and Cleo Lemon is a restricted free agent who may or may not be back. The Dolphins will try to get more speed at the wide receiver position. They were slow afoot and lacked big plays. They have 15 free agents, including defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, tackle Damion McIntosh, running back Sammy Morris and safety Travares Tillman. They could cut wide receiver Marty Booker, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and offensive lineman Seth McKinney. This team figures to have 20 or more changes on the roster. Culpepper could be the key, though. If he can become a good quarterback again, the Dolphins could be a contender. They will stay in a 3-4 defense after keeping Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator.
Cap room: $12.2 million
The Vikings vow not to be big players in free agency. Brad Childress says those days are over. They want to build through the draft. Some free-agent signings haven't worked out. There could be a few releases before the start of free agency. Cornerback Fred Smoot, safety Dwight Smith, tackle Mike Rosenthal, quarterback Brad Johnson and tight end Jermaine Wiggins could all be cut. The Vikings could lose linebacker Napoleon Harris, whose contract voids. Wide receiver Travis Taylor is a free agent and the Vikings already cut Marcus Robinson. That means the Vikings need one or two wide receivers, tight end help and more depth at cornerback and right tackle. Their quarterback position is also in flux. Tarvaris Jackson is raw. Brooks Bollinger isn't the answer. Johnson is probably going to be gone. The third-place schedule gives them
non-common games against the Falcons and 49ers, which will be tough. Childress also has to replace defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, whom players liked and respected.
New England Patriots
Cap room: $26.9 million
The Patriots are gambling with their roster. They didn't want to pay big money for Deion Branch, so they lost him for lesser receivers. Yet, they went to the AFC title game without him. Now, they are contemplating not re-signing Asante Samuel, who will compete against Nate Clements for the big cornerback money in free agency. The Patriots also could lose tight end Daniel Graham and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain in free agency. Clearly, the window hasn't closed on the Patriots' Super Bowl runs, but their roster is getting thinner and thinner each year. It's going to be hard for them to stay at the 12-win level next season because they have the toughest schedule in the AFC (.535 against). Last year, they had a .496-against schedule, which helped their record. Still, the Patriots should win 10 or 11 games without too much trouble. Tom Brady is still the quarterback. Coach Bill Belichick has reached the Hall of Fame level, but at some point he needs a new contract. There is some thought this could be the final year of his deal. As everyone knows, Belichick keeps everything a mystery.
New Orleans Saints
Cap room: $21.9 million
The Saints are among the league leaders with 16 free agents. The biggest decision involves defensive end Charles Grant. Now that the Saints are a Super Bowl contender, Grant is too good to let slip away. The Saints have to franchise him or re-sign him. The rest of the list isn't too bad. They could lose guard Montrae Holland, but head coach Sean Payton did a great job of retooling the offensive line last season, getting younger and better. They need to re-sign defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who was valuable stopping the run. Age or injuries could put wide receiver Joe Horn or tight end Ernie Conwell on the bubble of being cut, but the Saints don't want to do too much to destroy the karma on this team. Their surplus of cap room means they don't have to release anyone. Fred Thomas struggled at cornerback, so they may need to look at upgrading that position. Defense will be the focal point for the Saints during the offseason. They patched the linebacking corps with transitional veterans. They could use more help at defensive tackle. Still, the Saints are loaded on offense and should have mostly everyone back. They probably need to acquire a pass-catching tight end, but they did well without one. The Saints' schedule features nine games against teams that had .500 records or better in 2006.
New York Giants
Cap room: $9.4 million
As long as Eli Manning doesn't get worse, the Giants should at least be a contender for a wild-card spot or the NFC East title. The offense simply can't afford for him to regress, especially considering Tiki Barber has retired. The defense could take a hit, though. The Giants could cut linebacker Carlos Emmons, but they have two defenders -- Michael Strahan and LaVar Arrington -- coming off major foot or leg injuries and it is possible both players might not be the same. If that's the case, the defense could suffer a drop in production. Tom Coughlin is clearly fighting for his head-coaching life. He signed a one-year extension for 2008, but he has to win now. Two playoff appearances are not enough to satisfy ownership. Coughlin needs to get deep into the playoffs and he needs to make Manning a better quarterback. He brought in Chris Palmer as the quarterback coach and moved Kevin Gilbride over to offensive coordinator. The Giants have only nine free agents, but center Shaun O'Hara sticks out as the best of the crop. It would be hard to lose him because New York needs to get better along the offensive line, not worse. The Giants also need more speed at the wide receiver position. New York didn't really improve much in 2006. An easier schedule, though, could provide one or two wins next season.
New York Jets
Cap room: $20.8 million
Eric Mangini surprised everyone by making the Jets a contender in his first season. The mission gets tougher this year. The Jets' opponents last year had a collective winning percentage of .469. And against teams with a .500 record or better, the Jets went just 3-4. This year, their schedule is tougher (opponents' winning percentage is a collective .516), which should pull the Jets back closer to .500. The Jets have only five free agents, the only starter being right tackle Anthony Clement. They could make a few changes on the roster with wide receiver Justin McCareins, cornerback David Barrett and halfbacks Kevan Barlow and Derrick Blaylock being possible casualties. Curtis Martin will retire. Still, Mangini is molding a Bill Belichick-type of team. The players are smart and they know the game. Chad Pennington made an incredible comeback from two shoulder surgeries. With great coaching and a no-huddle option, Pennington will be pushing the Jets to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East title if they can get past the tougher schedule.
Cap room: $6.2 million
The Raiders are a mess. Al Davis hired 31-year-old Lane Kiffin as the coach, and it's not certain whether some of his receivers will want to play for him. Randy Moss wants to be traded and has already let Kiffin know he's not happy about being in Oakland. So all Kiffin has to do is turn around the offense, possibly without Moss and Jerry Porter (who had his problems last year and is no sure thing this season), which won't be easy. The smart money would be on the Raiders taking LSU QB JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall pick. That might not mean a winning season in 2007, but it gives them some hope for the future. But, of course, there is no guarantee the Raiders will do that. Oakland has a lot of overpaid players on offense. LaMont Jordan hasn't played like a $5.5 million running back. Moss and Porter have been nonfactors. The offensive line is shaky. The Raiders scored only 12 offensive touchdowns last season. They have the makings of a good defense with eight relatively young players working well with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Raiders could cut guard Barry Sims and Aaron Brooks could be in trouble at quarterback.
Cap room: $3.6 million
The Eagles took the NFC East's best shot -- the division brought in Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs to stop them -- but Philly got the last laugh and is back on top. The Eagles, who went to four straight NFC title games, dropped down to six wins in 2005 but rebounded in style, winning the division in 2006. Andy Reid has rebuilt the offensive and defensive lines and Donovan McNabb will be back at quarterback. Jeff Garcia figures to leave in free agency for more money and a different opportunity (Chicago and Tampa Bay are just two of the teams being mentioned), but A.J. Feeley can take over as the backup. The Eagles have only 10 free agents. Safety Michael Lewis is expected to leave. They would like to re-sign Donte' Stallworth, but that could be competitive. The Eagles will be looking for help at wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker and could use a safety as well. Still, the Eagles are back in control of the NFC East.
Cap room: $3.1 million
New head coach Mike Tomlin needs to maintain what Bill Cowher built for years. The job won't be all that easy. He kept Dick LeBeau around to help with the 3-4 defense, but Tomlin may try to turn the Steelers into a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3, with the 3-4 being the base. Bruce Arians takes over as offensive coordinator. He wants to spread the field with four receivers, something Ben Roethlisberger likes, although Roethlisberger first has to buy into the change from Ken Whisenhunt to Arians. He also has to adjust to Ken Anderson as the quarterbacks coach. The Steelers need to find a big back to complement Willie Parker. T.J. Duckett could be that back at the right price. The Steelers have a tough assignment in replacing center Jeff Hartings, who retired. Tomlin also has to decide whether he likes vocal Joey Porter at outside linebacker. Cowher left Tomlin a playoff-caliber team. The Steelers have nine free agents who are all backups. It's up to Tomlin to get Pittsburgh back into the playoffs.
St. Louis Rams
Cap room: $22.9 million
The Rams came out of 2006 with a respectable 8-8 record under first-year coach Scott Linehan. The Rams still have a dangerous offense. Marc Bulger is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFC. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are aging a little but they are a dangerous one-two punch at receiver. Steven Jackson is one of the league's most dangerous running backs. Those are the positives keeping the team afloat. The problems are many. The offensive line remains a concern. It struggled again last season. The defense improved through free agency and the draft but it needs more athletes. What makes things worse is that the 49ers and Cardinals could be ready to pass the Rams in the NFC West, and St. Louis hasn't caught up to the Seahawks. The Rams could suffer a big loss if Kevin Curtis leaves. He's a dangerous receiver who is entering his prime. The Rams' 13 other free agents are mostly backups and key role players. The Rams have plenty of room to upgrade their roster. They may cut guard Adam Timmerman and linebacker Dexter Coakley, but there aren't any cap issues.
San Diego Chargers
Cap room: $21.4 million
General manager A.J. Smith has done a great job of keeping the roster together. He re-signed seven players last year. The team has 15 players who were selected to the Pro Bowl or as alternates. It has only seven free agents, the most important being guard Kris Dielman, whom the Chargers can't afford to lose. The concern has to be coaching. Marty Schottenheimer is in the last year of his contract and could be gone after the season. The Chargers lost both coordinators -- Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips. They lost linebackers coach Greg Manusky. The drain on the coaching staff and the uncertainty about Schottenheimer could affect the Chargers next season. But don't be fooled. This team is loaded and could be a Super Bowl contender again. It has a great young quarterback in Philip Rivers, and it has LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers also have the easiest of the first-place schedules among the AFC teams.
San Francisco 49ers
Cap room: $37.5 million
This team could reach the playoffs next year. Mike Nolan got a break when the Cowboys hired Wade Phillips instead of Norv Turner. It would have been a severe setback to the 49ers, as Turner has been instrumental in the development of Alex Smith. Frank Gore is considered by some to be the NFC's best young running back. The plan is to work on the defense. With this much cap room and plenty of draft picks, the 49ers could come up with six or seven new starters on defense. They plan to make two or three major free-agent signings. They will try for Baltimore LB Adalius Thomas, but if the Ravens franchise him, the Niners may go for Nate Clements or Asante Samuel. The 49ers could use another receiver, but the emphasis will be on improving the defense.
Cap room: $17.2 million
The window is starting to close on the Seahawks, but they should remain a step ahead of the competition in the NFC West for another year or two. The Seahawks suffered many injuries last season. Matt Hasselbeck missed four games with a knee injury, then needed surgery to repair a torn left labrum. He should be ready for training camp. Shaun Alexander missed seven games with a broken foot. The offensive line was forced to juggle the lineup throughout the season. The good news is that youngsters Rob Sims and Chris Spencer emerged. Spencer will replace the retiring Robbie Tobeck at center. Sims will start at left guard. The Seahawks need bigger and healthier defensive linemen, and a coverage safety. But they still have Mike Holmgren, so they have a chance for their fourth division title in a row. They won't lose kicker Josh Brown because they can franchise him if they don't sign him to a new contract.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cap room: $15 million
The pressure is building on Jon Gruden. Ownership values his coaching, but the pressure is back on the Bucs to return to their winning ways. Age finally caught up to the defense last season. The Bucs plan to keep defensive end Simeon Rice, but they could release defensive linemen Ellis Wyms and Greg Spires if they don't restructure their contracts. They need to re-sign defensive end Dewayne White, who is a free agent. The most important decision will come at quarterback. The Bucs re-signed Chris Simms, but they may go after Jeff Garcia as insurance. The Bucs could cut right tackle Kenyatta Walker, but they also have to decide if they want Mike Alstott back.
Cap room: $37 million
The Titans have the look of a playoff team next season, as Vince Young went 8-5 down the stretch. They have several free agents, including wide receiver Drew Bennett, halfback Chris Brown, defensive tackle Rien Long and defensive end Robaire Smith. Jeff Fisher has turned this team around. Young went to the Pro Bowl and should get better next season, as he will open the year as the starting quarterback. Plus, Fisher will try to improve the talent level at receiver. Fisher's biggest task, though, is improving the defense. This is a young unit still struggling for an identity. Young helped make the Titans competitive. It's up to the defense to take the team to the next level.
Cap room: $4.3 million
Don't expect the Redskins to go crazy in free agency. They have 11 free agents, but only LB Warrick Holdman is a starter. There could be significant roster changes, though. Gibbs could wipe out quarterback Mark Brunell, wide receiver David Patten, safety Troy Vincent, kicker John Hall, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and safety Adam Archuleta. T.J. Duckett will leave in free agency. The Redskins figure to make major improvements along the defensive front seven, which became less athletic last season. The key to the team's playoff chances is how Jason Campbell develops at quarterback.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.